Welcome to Tokyo, home to some 13 million residents, the capital city of Japan, and most definitely the capital of sensory overload!
If you had asked me last year to reveal my bucket list of travel destinations, I confess that Japan would have been quite low on the list, perhaps not on it at all. It wasn’t down to any sort of aversion, simply that there were other destinations that dominated my list. But when a good friend moved to Tokyo with her family and invited me to visit them, my interest was piqued. As I researched an itinerary for my trip, I was surprised to discover a lot of people out there nurturing a mild obsession with Japan. Having returned from my sojourn, I now share a love for this island nation and its unique culture. Unfortunately my visit was all too brief; there is so much culture, history and beautiful places to take in that I do believe a second visit is warranted. Watch out my friends….I’ll be back!
So, the facts: Japan is a string of over 6,500 volcanic islands sitting in the Pacific Ocean and neighbouring the likes of Taiwan, China, Russia, North and South Korea. The main four (and largest) islands are Hokkaido in the north, Honshu (where Tokyo is located), Kyushu to the south of Honshu and Shikoku to the south east of Honshu. The climate is sub-tropical generally giving warm summers and chilly winters, though Japan also has a monsoon season and falls prey to the unpredictable whims of volcanic activity, earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis (as we are all sadly aware). The general consensus on the best time of year to visit Japan is in March/April and mid October/November time when the cherry blossoms or autumn leaves are at their most magical. And it is magical; my trip was in late November and the landscapes were stunningly awash with fiery colours.
The most immediate challenge on arrival in Japan is the language – I rather arrogantly assumed that English would be widely spoken, especially in Tokyo, but it is not strictly the case. Getting directions, buying train tickets or catching a cab can all be fraught with communication errors, but the Japanese are really friendly and eager to help. Arming yourself with a few key words before you arrive should smooth your journey. Ordering food is a little simpler on account of picture illustrations or the plastic replica dishes that most restaurants have on display.
My first stop was Tokyo, a huge metropolis of over 13 million people. If you like a sensory overload, then this is the place for you. The upmarket districts of Ginza, Shibuya and Omotesando are a whirlwind of bustling shoppers and workers; the funky, eye-popping district of Harajuku is a mecca for young fashionistas parading their unique style; the Tsukiji fish market is alive and whizzing with activity from the very early hours, and on certain days it is possible to observe tuna auctions which take place from 5am. A great diversion if you find your jetlag waking you in the wee small hours.
By contrast, dotted amongst all the hustle and bustle are many beautifully ornate temples and shrines, which are testament to the Shinto and Buddhist way of life followed by many Japanese. Not to be missed are the Shinto Meiji Jingu Shrine and the ancient Buddhist Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa. You may even be lucky enough to witness worship in progress, which is really quite special.
Don’t forget to purify yourself in the fountains before entering the temples, and expect crowds. To take the pace down a notch or two, take a stroll through the peaceful Imperial Palace gardens to see the ruins of the old Edo castle that used to stand on that site – the contrast with the modern skyscraper backdrop is stark. The Imperial Palace itself, where Japan’s Imperial Family actually reside, is not generally open to the public but it is possible to book guided tours in advance at certain times of the year.
Just a couple of hours drive outside Tokyo lies the Fuji Hakone Iza national park, where the imposing Mount Fuji rises out of the surrounding lands of Hakone. The area is volcanic with sulphur springs dotted around the mountainsides. Hakone is to Tokyo what the Hamptons is to New York. So if you have the time, a weekend in Hakone is a must. Here, you can take the opportunity to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan (guest house), to soak your weary traveller bones in the traditional onsen (hot springs) and sample the local flavours with traditional Japanese dining.
Mount Fuji itself is the tallest mountain in Japan standing at 3,776m. It is possible to climb to the summit at certain times of the year, but for those feeling slightly less energetic there are coach excursions up to the 5th station (the starting point for most climbers) where you can take in views of the five lakes that surround the base of the mountain.
Cuisine in Japan is taken very seriously and presentation is as important as the taste. It goes without saying that the sushi and sashimi are lip-smackingly good and some bento boxes are so exquisitely presented that it almost feels like an act of vandalism to tuck in. For a real treat, teppanyaki cuisine is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the belly. A delicious array of foods are cooked on an iron hot plate in front of you by flamboyant chefs. Wash down seared lotus root, crispy garlic flakes, seafood and prime beef steak with miso soup and some top shelf Sake. Or try yakitori – skewered vegetables and chicken (or pork) steeped in a soy based marinade and cooked over hot coals or a griddle. For sweet treats unlike anything else you have tasted before, head to one of the many food halls found underground at train stations and shopping malls. Most of the produce on display will be unrecognisable to the average westerner, so the only sensible thing is to ask for a taste. Try green tea cakes (mmm oishii!), black bean cookies, cakes filled with sweet bean paste and jellied fruits. Curiouser and curiouser.
For a little more laid back entertainment, you simply cannot forgo a visit to the ubiquitous karaoke bars. Personally, I always had a horror of karaoke and I would still resist any suggestion of getting up to sing in a western pub. But there is something transforming about karaoke bars in Japan; the room is small, the lights are low, the music is loud and you are surrounded by people eager to get up there and show you how it’s done. Their enthusiasm is infectious and, perhaps with a little dutch courage, you’ll be belting out a ballad in no time. Just make sure your friends are not secretly filming you!
My only regret was that I missed the window to see a Sumo Wrestling match. These ritualistic tournaments date back to ancient times and were originally a form of entertainment for the gods. Sumo today is the national sport in Japan and something you are not very likely to see anywhere else. Tournaments are held six times a year in various locations around Japan, twice in Tokyo.
The flight time to Tokyo from major European hubs is approximately 12 hours with an eight hour time difference. I flew with British Airways from Nice via London Heathrow for around €900 (other major carriers are available). The time difference can cause a degree of jetlag on arrival, so set your watch to Tokyo time before takeoff to mentally prepare yourself for the time difference. I booked my day trip to Mt. Fuji with JTB Sunrise Tours, who provide foreign language guides as well. For more general information and listings of current events in and around Tokyo visit the Japan Guide website.
Lead image © All Rights Reserved Richard Harrod on Flickr; all other images courtesy Lorraine Davidson